A Theory of Creepiness

September 20, 2016

Imagine looking down to see a severed hand scuttling toward you across the floor like a large, fleshy spider. Imagine a dog trotting up to you, amiably wagging its tail – but as it gets near you notice that, instead of a canine head, it has the head of an enormous green lizard. Imagine that you are walking through a garden where the vines all writhe like worms.

There’s no denying that each of these scenarios is frightening, but it’s not obvious why. There’s nothing puzzling about why being robbed at knifepoint, pursued by a pack of wolves, or trapped in a burning house are terrifying given the physical threat involved. The writhing vines, on the other hand, can’t hurt you though they make your blood run cold. As with the severed hand or the dog with the lizard head, you have the stuff of nightmares – creepy.

And creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

Why the enduring fascination with creepiness? What lies at the core of this special form of dread? The psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke of Knox College in Illinois try to get at the essence in their paper ‘On the Nature of Creepiness’ (2016), where they propose that a person is creepy if we are uncertain about whether he or she is someone to fear, which leads to psychic paralysis.

To test this idea, they conducted an online survey in which more than 1,300 respondents were asked to imagine that a trusted friend reported meeting a person whom they characterised as ‘creepy’. Participants were then asked to select characteristics that they imagined the hypothetical creepy person to possess, to rate the creepiness of a list of occupations, to name two creepy hobbies, and finally to evaluate the truth or falsity of 15 statements about the characteristics of creepy people.

The results of this survey are for the most part unsurprising. Participants pictured the creepy person standing inappropriately close to their friend, displaying a peculiar smile; having greasy or unkempt hair, bulging eyes, abnormally long fingers, very pale skin or bags under the eyes.

The imagined creepy person wore dirty or peculiar clothes, often licked his or her lips, laughed unpredictably, and obsessively steered conversation towards a single topic, making it difficult for the friend to break it off. Clowns topped the list of creepy professions, followed by taxidermists, sex-shop owners and funeral directors.

When it came to hobbies, collecting dolls, insects, reptiles or body parts (such as teeth, fingernails and bones) were rated as especially creepy. Answers to the 15 questions revealed that creepiness was most often regarded as an innate characteristic of the person rather than merely a feature of their behaviour; that creepy people elicit fear or anxiety in others; and that people whom we regard as creepy can harbour sexual desires towards us (this might have to do with the fact that more than half of the respondents in the study were women, who mainly imagined that the creepy person in the vignette was a man).

The results suggested a core concept of creepiness: people whose behaviour or appearance deviated from the norm, making them unpredictable or possibly dangerous, triggered the so-called ‘creepiness detector’ – the intuitive sense that danger could be in the offing. Call this the ‘Threat Ambiguity Theory’ of creepiness, or TAT for short.

But the portent of physical danger needn’t be a necessary ingredient of creepiness, according to some researchers. This view was first explored by the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in his groundbreaking essay ‘Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen’ (1906), conventionally translated into English as ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’. But that fails to do the German justice. Uncanny things are anomalous, but not invariably unsettling or ominous. In most contexts, things described as Unheimlich are spine-chilling. They make your flesh crawl.

Like McAndrews and Koehnke, Jentsch held that Unheimlichkeit was the upshot of a kind of uncertainty leading to cognitive paralysis; but he did not think that paralysis was prompted by uncertainty about threat. Instead, he made the case that when we regard a thing as creepy it’s because we are uncertain about what kind of thing it is.

When we encounter something familiar, we immediately categorise it as such-and-such a kind of thing. When we encounter something novel, we often slot it into a pre-existing category. But there are occasions when we encounter things that resist categorisation. They seem to belong to two or more mutually exclusive categories. In such circumstances, we are suspended between alternatives.

We don’t know what to make of the thing, because it violates our established conceptual norms. Jentsch argued that when this occurs it elicits a distinctive and disturbing feeling – the feeling of creepiness. Call this the ‘Categorical Ambiguity Theory’ of creepiness, or CAT.

the eyes are fixed and dead, the facial expression is immobile, and the skin has a peculiar, waxy texture

Jentsch’s most compelling example turns on uncertainty about whether a thing is animate or inanimate. ‘Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise,’ he wrote, ‘there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate.’

Inanimate simulations of the human form that are almost indistinguishable from the genuine article can be extremely disturbing. Consider a waxwork figure – say, one that’s meant to represent President Barak Obama – so lifelike it would be easy to mistake it at a glance for the man himself. But there’s something not quite right about it: the eyes are fixed and dead, the facial expression is immobile, and the skin has a peculiar, waxy texture.

This mix of characteristics causes the spectator to respond in a contradictory manner: as though it were a living, breathing human being and also as if it were an inanimate lump of matter. As long as she is unable to settle unequivocally on one or another of these inconsistent interpretations of the figure, she experiences it as creepy.

Jentsch’s theory of creepiness faded into obscurity until Masahiro Mori, then a professor of engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, rediscovered it more than half a century later. Mori wrote a short but immensely influential article entitled ‘Bukimi No Tan’ (1970), which later appeared in English under the title ‘The Uncanny Valley’.

Mori predicted that, as robots become more and more human-looking, they also become more and more likeable to the humans who interact with them, but only up to a point. When androids are nearly indistinguishable from humans, a precipitous drop in their likability will occur. ‘In climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human,’ he wrote, ‘our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley which I call the uncanny [bukimi] valley.’

In an interview conducted more than 40 years later, Mori said that his speculations about the valley were guided by reflections on his own psychological responses: ‘Since I was a child,’ he remarked, ‘I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me.’

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